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Opponent Q&A: Get to Know the Akron Zips

Is this going to be as much of a walk in the park as we expect? Yes.

Syndication: Akron Beacon Journal Jeff Lange via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Auburn takes on Akron this Saturday night at 6 pm CST for the 2021 season opener, and while the Tigers have had some high-profile openers over the past several years, it’s nice to get one that we don’t have to worry about. Still, it’s always a plus to know your opponent! That’s why we’re bringing in Keith Gregorski from Hustle Belt to give us the skinny on what the Zips are going to show us this weekend.

Both Auburn and Akron got to enjoy the Terry Bowden experience, how did that all turn out for the Zips and in what kind of shape did Terry leave the Akron program?

Ah, Terry Bowden.

Bowden coached Akron for seven years, finishing up with a 35-52 record. His teams mostly finished around the middle of the pack in the MAC East division but had some highs and some lows.

The highlights were the 2015 and 2017 seasons where the Zips won 8 games including the first bowl game win in school history, and a MAC EAST title.

For the lowlights, Bowden finished his first season with an 1-11 record; however, to be fair, Bowden inherited a mess at Akron, with the previous coach going 2-22 in the prior two seasons, leaving the cupboard fairly bare in terms of player talent.

The bottom fell out for Bowden in the 2018 season as the Zips went 4-8, struggling offensively, finishing near the bottom of the FBS in points scored, offensive yards per game, and rushing yards per game. The Zips offensively in 2020 started to rebound from the downturn that began in 2018, particularly in the running game, where Akron averaged 142 yards per game rushing compared with less than 100 yards per game in 2018.

Bowden was fired after the 2018 season with two years left on his contract.

A final Bowden-Auburn-Akron connection: Tigers guard Brandon Council is a former Zip who played for Bowden before transferring to Auburn.

Tom Arth has had quite the struggle over the past two years with just one win. What’s the temperature on him and is he expected to make any improvements in 2021?

Despite a 1-17 record in his first two seasons, I think Arth’s seat is still on the cooler side at this point, for a number of reasons.

Akron is a really tough job; since the Zips moved up to the FBS (Div 1-A), entering the Mid-American Conference in 1992, no head coach has left Akron with a winning career record. In fact, the last three head coach hires, including Arth, have started their Akron careers with 1-11, 1-11, and 0-12 records their first years.

I think Akron knew when Arth arrived that a complete program rebuild and culture change was the plan and could take time. Also, Arth signed a reported five-year, 500k deal late in 2018 and the Athletic Department does not have a lot of financial resources, so the money to buy out the current coaches may not be there, even if they wanted to make a coaching change.

As far as improvements, I believe they will be better this year under coach Arth. They are a very young team, especially across the offensive and defensive lines and need a year or two to develop physically. That being said, I think Arth and company have done a nice job of assembling some core players, they just need some time.

The Zips were also without their senior QB Kato Nelson last year due to surgery and I think they will be better in 2021 just by getting him back.

With Teon Dollard facing a suspension for this game, who can the Zips depend on to be a playmaker on offense?

Teon Dollard was very recently removed from the roster, and while we don’t yet exactly why, it is clear he is he will not be playing anytime soon.

Akron hasn’t announced a starter at QB officially, which could happen at any time between now and when the Zips take the field on offense Saturday, but their best offensive playmaker is senior QB Kato Nelson.

Nelson returns in 2021 and is by far their most established guy. Nelson has played in 30+ games for the Zips, with 5,000+ career passing yards and 600+ rushing yards. He is a solid scrambler and very tough. Nelson generally takes care of the ball, with a career 34-16 TD/INT ratio. Nelson led the Zips to a MAC East title and championship game appearance as a freshman.

The best overall unit at this time on either side of the ball might be the WR group. Andre Williams was named to some All-MAC preseason teams in 2019 and looks like he could return in 2021 after not playing in 2020. George Qualls Jr. is a big target at 6’2”, 185 pounds and Michael Mathison is an explosive player at WR and kickoff return.

Quickly becoming a fan favorite, freshman WR Tony Grimes Jr. walked on last year and worked his way onto the field to play six games. Tough guy who can move the chains.

Multiple reports from fall camp indicate true freshman WR Oran Singleton Jr. has flashed big-play ability and could make his debut against Auburn.

Bubba Arslanian had triple the tackles of anyone else last year. At only 5’9, what makes him so productive on the defensive side of the ball?

Arslanian is an absolute beast-he is a prime example of what is great about Mid-American Conference football. He plays LB and on many special team units and he is always around the ball.

Bubba is a high-character guy who does all the right things. Akron was his only FBS offer and, from early on, he was focused on being his best. Arslanian said examples set by players like former Akron star and current Steelers LB Ulysees Gilbert III showed him the hard work it takes to rise to the top and Arslanian cannot be outworked, coming back bigger, stronger, faster every year.

Arslanian said his high school wrestling experience was key in playing LB, in areas like tackling.

To summarize, the Zips could be down by 30 or up by 30 and Arslanian will be hustling to the ball like he is playing the final drive of a championship game where the score is tied.

If Akron sticks around with Auburn, what’s going right for the Zips in this game?

If Akron is hanging in, they are doing a credible job against the run, which is typically the issue when MAC squads face Power Five opponents. For instance, in 2019, the game derailed quickly for fellow MAC member Kent State when they allowed about 10 yards per carry to the starting RB in route to a 48-0 loss to Wisconsin.

A big question for the Zips in stopping the run against Auburn is do they have the defensive line depth they need to rotate to keep guys fresh for four quarters? The Zips are very young on the defensive line on the whole, with a few sophomores and several freshmen on the two deep. The Zips are probably a year or two away from their best football on the defensive line but do have some talent and could hold up into the second half.

If the d-line can hold up, Akron LBs Arslanian and Michigan State transfer Jeslord Boateng should be able to make some plays against the run.

A third-team All-MAC CB in 2020, sophomore A.J. Watts is a guy on the rise and at 6’1”, 195 has been good in run support, finishing second in tackles in 2020 behind Arslanian.

Finally, what’s your score prediction?

52-13, Auburn.

The Zips are young on both sizes of the line and will likely give up a fair number of sacks and explosive running plays as a result. The lack of experienced depth on the Zips defensive line will start to show in the second half against an Auburn unit that features a promising young RB in Tank Bigsby and an offensive line that projects to be in the top half of the SEC according to publications like Phil Steele’s College Football Preview.

The Zips QB Kato Nelson will turn in a gritty performance, making some plays with his feet as well as his arm to the Zips’ strongest unit, the WR corps, but it won’t be enough to get things done.